"The Purge" films are low-budget action movies for a mass audience that accidentally became the perfect political commentary for our garbage-fire age: Kind of stupid, desperate to survive and constantly stumbling upon some new horror dreamed up by the men in charge.
None of the movies in the series are masterpieces, but their ability to anticipate and respond to cultural anxieties has deepened as James Demonaco, the producer, writer, and director of the first three installments, added to the world and cranked them out to match the national mood. The first film used the premise as background to an otherwise unremarkable home invasion thriller, but the subsequent films all deliberately, explicitly illuminate the basic reality that American society values poor people — and poor people of color specifically — less than anyone else.
If you haven't seen them yet, "The Purge" is a government conspiracy to mass murder people with lower social status as a way for leaders to avoid taking responsibility for the disadvantages with which impoverished citizens live. As a potentially successful means of social control, the Purge is questionable at best — but as a conceit for a wildly successful film franchise (and now upcoming television series), it’s brilliant, and it’s turned into a surprisingly sharp dissection of the ugliness that has lurked in American political discourse for as long as the country has existed.
The Purge has turned into a surprisingly sharp dissection of the ugliness that has lurked in American political discourse for as long as the country has existed.
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In the world of the Purge, a political party run by wealthy white men called the New Founding Fathers of America has seized control of a divided country and promised to restore order and address issues like unemployment and poverty. Their solution is the Purge, one 12-hour period every year during which all crime, including murder, is legal. In each movie, a new band of hapless men, women and children have to survive the night’s threats, during which they learn dark secrets about the forces behind the annual bloodletting.
DeMonaco doesn’t even make audiences work particularly hard to connect the Purge to current events; scene after scene is full of men in blood-stained Klan outfits, blackface masks and now white polos and khakis straight out of the Charlottesville white supremacist rally. While some might find that lack of subtlety to be in poor taste, there is an undeniable catharsis that comes from watching everyday people fight back against forces that so violently oppress them on a systemic level. (At least one scene in "The First Purge" is as viscerally satisfying as watching the best of the Richard Spencer getting punched memes.)
Watching the news in the real world means witnessing a slow-moving purge of non-white residents of the U.S., as well as the rollback of countless policies meant to make the world safe for more than just the richest families on earth. A U.S. congresswoman was widely condemned and threatened for suggesting that people should peacefully confront members of the current administration over policies that endanger the future. The most powerful men and women in the United States treat even the most basic acts of civil resistance like armed revolt; when real-life “civility” means unquestioning acquiescence, there’s room for escapism that does away with Twitter handwringing over whether suffering communities have been polite enough to deserve attention.
None of the movies in the series are masterpieces, but their ability to anticipate and respond to cultural anxieties has deepened as James Demonaco added to the world and cranked them out to match the national mood
It’s that lack of subtlety that I find most refreshing about the movies: It’s not a mistake that the last two were released on July 4, or that the poster for 2016’s "The Purge: Election Year" sported the tagline, “Keep America Great.” And at least there’s no prestigious newspaper columnist begging citizens to understand the “economic anxiety” of the grotesque Winklevii-lookalikes of “Anarchy” who bid in an underground auction for the opportunity to hunt people for sport; and in the same film, no one tries to justify a family’s purchase of an old man’s life by citing their “religious values.”
The central plot device is racist violence that the audience is primed to hate, and in this universe, it’s possible to defend against that violence — if only for 12 hours.
Some critics have suggested that there is enough ambiguity for viewers of all political leanings to appreciate the movie, but it’s difficult to imagine a hardcore Trump supporter finding much to connect to without serious self-delusion. "The First Purge" drops references to the NRA’s support for the NFFA; a murderous strike force that attacks a housing project is led by a man in a black vinyl military coat and gimp mask; mercenaries hired to kill people on Staten Island are explained as “like Blackwater”; and there is one deeply creepy reference to the "Access Hollywood" tape. It might be possible to enjoy the spectacle of the movies without thinking about the context, but there’s no question what side of the current culture war they support.
It’s unclear whether DeMonaco and company will make another Purge movie; when "Election Year" concluded, the Purge had been eliminated but small militias were resisting the shift back to a more inclusive, just society.
According to the recently released trailer for the 10-episode USA series, September will bring more stories of survival and sadism, but exactly when the show is set in the universe is still unclear. Casting and story details suggest that the show will give more time to characters who find themselves forced to choose whether to join the purge-happy elite or remain on the margins of society. If done well, it could be a pulpy take on the question of who becomes a Nazi and why. But if it spends too much time coddling the feelings of its upwardly mobile protagonists? There’s always hope for another installment of the movies for July 4, 2020.
Meredith Clark is a freelance writer and editor in New York City.